Plowshares Into Swords: The Lost Biblical Ideal of Peace

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For modern readers, the story of Pinhas is one of the most vexing episodes in the Hebrew Bible. The Israelites have been seduced by foreign women, and the head of the tribe of Simeon has ceremoniously escorted the daughter of Midian’s king into his tent. In an act of seemingly unsanctioned zealotry, Pinhas take his spear and kills the iniquitous couple before Moses and the people. Then, after this act of public violence, God—strangely—bestows on Pinhas his “covenant of peace.”

This close association of violence—even in the name of justice—and peace strikes many contemporary students of the Bible as incongruous. But, argues David Hazony in Azure, Pinhas’s covenant makes a great deal of sense once we understand how the Bible’s idea of peace differs sharply from the pacifistic conception of peace prevalent today. In Scripture, peace is not so much about compromise, as about the triumph of the Jewish ethic.

The idea that cessation of hostilities is a goal which justifies the compromise of all other principles—and especially justice—has been a staple of pacifist thought for millennia. Cicero’s formulation of this idea in the first century b.c.e. is still the accepted wisdom today: “I cease not to advocate peace; even though unjust, it is better than the most just war.” Martin Luther said the same sixteen hundred years later: “Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace.” It is this belief which leads many modern diplomats to pursue treaties with even the most brutal of dictators—such as the appeasement doctrine of the 1930s that cited “peace” as the moral justification for repeated acquiescence by European leaders to the demands of Nazi Germany.

In the biblical view, however, peace requires that justice be done—even at the point of a sword. It is this premise which underlies all the messianic visions: The military victories over evildoing nations depicted therein are fundamental for peace, because they are necessary for the ultimate triumph of the Jewish vision of justice and righteousness—and it is for this reason that Pinhas, whose entire story is the staunch defense of righteousness, becomes the sole biblical figure worthy of God’s “covenant of peace.”

Read the whole essay in Azure.

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